Meet the chef: Danielle Alvarez
Imagine the challenge working in an entirely open kitchen where the customers can see, hear; almost even touch everything that you do. This is what Danielle Alvarez; head chef at Fred’s in Paddington has had to get her head around as well as teaching her team of chefs to stay cool during a busy service.
Fred’s is definitely a new unique concept for Sydney, and we were pleasantly surprised as we entered the old shop front on Oxford Street. The attention to detail in this place is spectacular, and the colours and lighting remind you of a grand country house. It’s all so elegant yet charming and rustic at the same time.
It’s hard to describe the intimacy of Fred’s dining room. Although pictures and reviews had given us an idea of the concept of an open kitchen, it is not until you actually see it, that you realise how open it is. The chefs are right there, in the dining room, you can even dine at one of their prep stations. It’s a risky and brave concept from the Merivale team, but one that has been executed with perfection
This was the concept that Justin Hemmes and the team at Merivale was interested in when looking at their project in Paddington, and although Fred’s only opened its doors in October last year, preparation and planning had been in the works for a lot longer than that.
In 2014 Danielle had recently finished up after several years at Chez Panisse and had decided that it was time to move on from the San Fransico area. Out of coincidence, she had booked a holiday in Australia, for no other reason than sun, beaches, relaxation and dining at some of Australia’s hot spots. To her surprise, she instantly fell in love with the country, and in a conversation with old hospitality friends, she mentioned that she would consider moving here. A couple of weeks later, this very same friend was having a chat with Merivale’s Food and Beverage Manager who asked him if he knew someone that might be interested in a similar project as Chez Panisse.
Danielle was approached and jumped on the idea, and upon her meeting with Justin Hemmes, they bonded over their mutual vision of produce-driven wholesome food.
There is an ingenuity about Danielle and her energy and attitude that she brings to the Sydney restaurant scene; we were intrigued to find out more about who she is and what her path and experiences have been so far.
As we meet up with her at Fred’s on a Friday morning, mid-prep for lunch service, we sat down with a bowl of garlic, and while peeling off the layers of skin from the fresh and vibrant bulbs, we endeavoured to find out more. The motion of this simple yet quite therapeutic task reinforces the authenticity of the restaurant.
Danielle comes from a large Cuban family and grew up in Florida, and to sit down and have a chat over a bowl of garlic or while picking herbs is something that comes naturally to her. She recalls how a lot of family time took place in the kitchen if it was over a dinner or just preparations, it didn’t really matter. That’s where day-to-day life was discussed, and a lot of laughter and sometimes tears were shared between relatives and friends.
Danielle comes across as a go-getter, and although chef-ing might not have been on her agenda as a child, she knew she wanted to do something creative. It was not until in her early twenties after completing an arts degree that she decided to pursue chef-ing. And without ever having set foot in a professional kitchen before, she applied to catering college.
A few times during our interview, Danielle stops and has a reminiscing smile, expressing that in hindsight, maybe her moves through her career had been a bit impulsive. But we must disagree, if anything she is fearless, like when she wrote a letter to Thomas Keller and asked if she could stage at the French Laundry and got a ‘Yes’ as a response.
Technically The French Laundry was the first professional kitchen that she ever worked in, and again in a very similar way; how she got the job at Chez Panisse, a place that has very low turnover in staff, and very rarely has an open position. She just happened to send that letter at the right time and was welcomed in with open arms to the “Panisse Family.”
Although Danielle has had a relatively rapid career progression since her completion of catering college, she has shown great longevity in her workplaces, which has proven very beneficial for her overall experience with produce, techniques and versatility. At Chez Pannise for example, where she worked for five years, the menu would change daily, and the team would work very closely with local farmers and producers to highlight whatever was in season on that day. Thanks to this, she gained an incredibly creative and inventive all around experience that for some chefs can take a lifetime to be exposed to.
To run a kitchen like Fred’s you have to be a good teacher, confident and humble. There is no room for loss of temper or control; you must teach your team well, make them feel confident in their tasks and make sure that you can all work together in harmony. Surely this must have been one of the biggest challenges for Danielle in her first months of opening Fred’s.
“ There are two kinds of chefs, there are the chefs that are really motivated by the intense military style kitchens and then there are the chefs who are more driven by maybe the creative style of things, and don’t need that motivation to produce. I am personally someone who shuts down a bit around that firm leadership. I prefer working for someone who can trust me and what I do.
“But a lot of people don’t handle that and need the guidance and discipline. Chez was one of the most gentle, kind and hard-working kitchens I have ever seen. Alice has managed to create a culture that is so caring of people, suppliers, guests and the community. I have never seen anything like that before. I would love to recreate something like that here. Chez Panisse has been there for over 40 years, and I’m sure it took time to get there, but that is what you want, for then people and staff are loyal to you, and that’s when you can really achieve great things. For chefs that respond well to that sort of freedom, you can attain greatness.”
Danielle can see the potential in the Australian hospitality scene but has already recognised that we have to encourage more people to join the industry. She believes that by creating a healthy work environment where people feel appreciated and heard is an essential pillar in this foundation. It’s also important that customer and consumers understand the process behind the product and that what they are being served involves several people’s hard work, dedication and passion. By appreciating and acknowledging the hard work of our farmers, producers and the industry people that bring it all together, perhaps customers would stop questioning the price of food and instead recognise the work that has gone into it.
Just as at Chez, Danielle works closely with local farmers and suppliers and has throughout her time her in Australia managed to build great relationships. It’s important for her that her food is fresh and genuine, and she refrains from using too many unfamiliar ingredients. The large fireplace at Fred’s is the star in the kitchen and here they cook anything from whole legs of lamb to stocks and stews. And yet again Danielle gets to be creative and inventive as she guides her team on a day to day basis through her many techniques and recipes that she has picked up along the way.
Friday – Sunday: 12pm–3pm
Tuesday – Saturday: 5.30pm–12am
Images from Merivale
Written by: Kristin Jonasson